Fuse #8

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Review of the Day: On the Wings of Heroes

On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck. Dial Books (a member of Penguin Group, Inc.). $16.99.

Yeah, well. What kind of review site would this be without a little Richard Peck once in a while anyway?

Richard Peck is such an old-fashioned guy. Go through his books and look what you find. Nasty bullies getting their due. Pranks. Upright citizens. Heroes. Work that makes a boy strong. And wise old people who dole out necessary advice and make the rest of us look weak in comparison. It takes a couple heaping helpfuls of nostalgia to write a Richard Peck book, and as far as I can figure it, nostalgia falls into two distinct categories: Good Nostalgia and Bad Nostalgia. Bad Nostalgia bores the socks off its readers. It wallows too deeply in the idea of how great things used to be and would rather eat its own shoes than allow that there might be some pretty great things going on right now. Good Nostalgia’s a different beast entirely. It conjures up the past, transplanting its readers to another time. A time where there was good and there was bad, but most of all there was just a world that wasn't too unlike our own. “On the Wings of Heroes” is rife with Good Nostalgia. It bears the flaws of its genre without apology, but is a pretty good book in the end anyway.

Everyone has to have a hero. For Davy it’s his older brother Bill. It’s World War II and Bill’s off to fight in a handsome B-17, carrying with him his small town’s good wishes. Life before and during the war couldn’t be more different. Before the war Davy spent a lot of time with his best friend Scooter, trying out their new bikes, enjoying Halloween, and playing in the warm summer nights. During is different. Now the kids are doing regular collections for the war effort. Bill's been sent off to fight and Davy's avoiding the malevolent (not to say violent) Beverly C. while dealing with family worries to boot. With a great cast of kooky characters and superb writing, a book that could have been yet another dull historical novel distinguishes itself. A great slice from the past.

A co-worker of mine is a gigantic Richard Peck fan. She’s read his books cover to cover and then back again. As such, she’s probably his biggest critic. After going through “Heroes”, she found she was not entirely impressed. Richard Peck lite, she called it. She even pointed out certain elements to me. The dirty bully girl in the book? Wasn’t she in a couple of his stories before? Ditto the ancient teacher idea, the pranks, and even the Midwestern setting. To her eyes, he’s done it all before and he’s done it better. Be that as it may, I am not a fan of her caliber. I read “A Long Way From Chicago” and “A Year Down Yonder” and enjoyed them just fine. Then I read “The Teacher’s Funeral” and “Here Lies the Librarian” and was disappointed. So for me, “On the Wings of Heroes” represents a return to form. Sure Peck is reusing some old tropes and techniques. Still, if you take the book in and of itself and don’t compare it to his past or future work, I think it stands rather nicely all on its own. It may not garner the biggest awards out there, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’ll have its fans.

Peck’s writing makes the whole enterprise well worth a peek anyway. First of all, he's funny, which is of vast unrecognized importance. Like any kid assigned this in school, I actually wasn't too keen on reading, "On the Wings of Heroes." Historical fiction is fine and all but I shy away from it when I can. So it's nice to get sucked into novel, especially if it's against your will. The individual sentences get all evocative and suggestions are made of future events. For example, whenever Davy’s father hears of an injustice or a wrong, we hear that, “something coiled in him again.” That “something” never uncoils in this book, but I suspect that it probably happens long after this particular story is over.

Of course, Peck writes of a white white world. If you’re looking for a little diversity, he’s not your man. It doesn’t usually occur to me when I read him, but this book in particular shows just how pale as newly fallen snow Peck’s universe is. He doesn’t deal with racism or social injustice much at all. So when the DAR gets a mention, it sticks out more for me than it might if there was a single African-American character living in this Midwestern American town. Those of you who would prefer to read a book with a little more racial complexity would do well to look to another novel.

Will kids read it? Not if you don’t sell it to them. Look, if a kid is standing in front of a row of books and one book has the title, “Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians” and the other book reads, “On the Wings of Heroes” which book is the kid going to pick up first? I mean some will read this book and love it, no question. It sounds odd to say, but the book this reminded me the most of was Ray Bradbury’s, “Dandelion Wine”. Know me and know my love of “Dandelion Wine” and you’ll see how grand a compliment this really is. It doesn’t have Bradbury’s dark surreal undercurrents, of course, but there’s a lot of joy here and a lot of familiar ideas. Plus, other books crop up in the old memory as well, like the moment when the root beer brewing in the basement explodes like a fourteen gun salute. It reminded me of nothing so much as the brewing that goes on in that great 30s novel, “Cheaper by the Dozen”. Though it shouldn't be confused with an accurate representation of the past in all respects, there's a lot in Peck's novel to enjoy. It has the ability to make children nostalgic for a time they will never know. Recommended.

Notes on the Cover: Okay. Dial, I know what you were going for here and I can’t blame you. And this jacket image is entirely faithful to the book, no question. You’re going for a nice 40s look, and who can blame you? So I’m giving you a pass on this one. Personally, I think this kind of image draws a very specific kind of reader. But let’s be honest here. Peck has written a very specific kind of book, so the packaging is faithful to product. Plus, this was done by Chuck Pyle? That wouldn’t happen to be the grandson of Howard Pyle, would it? Well his bio ain’t saying but it wouldn’t be a completely peculiar assumption to make. I wouldn't have commissioned it, but I can see why you did.

First Lines: "Before the War the evenings lingered longer, and it was always summer when it wasn't Halloween, or Christmas."

Previously Reviewed By: BookMoot, the Books for Kids Blog, Emily Reads and the BCCLS Mock Awards.

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At 8:18 AM , Blogger EM said...

I just read and reviewed this myself, and you said everything I couldn't fit into seventeen syllables.

At 8:52 AM , Blogger Laura said...

Haven't read it yet, but I think that First Line is fantastic. You know you're in for some serious nostalgia, dontchya?

At 1:51 PM , Blogger Saints and Spinners said...

Fuse: Once, my former boss (your current boss) took the day off work because it was his birthday. While I was working at the children's information desk, a tall, dapper man came up to me and delivered a package to your boss from your boss's sister. The next day, your boss read the note that came with the package, and smiled. "What a show-off!" he said fondly. The man who'd delivered the book was Richard Peck.

At 2:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"[Bad nostalgia] wallows too deeply in the idea of how great things used to be and would rather eat its own shoes than allow that there might be some pretty great things going on right now."

Interesting that you should say that. In Peck's recent very dynamic Zena Sutherland lecture in Chicago (which will soon be published in the Horn Book Magazine so that I can check it against my memory), he essentially condemned everything about the contemporary child's life (including family, schooling, pastimes), and exalted everything about his own childhood years. I don't think he intended to criticize so completely -- rather, he intended to explain what drives him to introduce history to modern children through fiction -- but unfortunately, it came off that way. My daughter was outraged to hear him say that children nowadays are "linguistically retarded and verbally anorexic." (I'm looking forward to checking her memory against the published version, too.) Forgive me for saying that I got the sense that Mr. Peck was isolated: that he hasn't met enough children like...well, like my son, who can quote Herodotus as easily as he can quote Homer Simpson, who catches all the Odyssey references in "O, Brother Where art Thou," whose favorite artist is Mike Mignola, and who speaks with his peers in a surprisingly sophisticated tongue of Internet comic references.

I just wish Mr. Peck had said ONE THING to acknowledge that he meant this only as an instructive generalization, so that my daughter could have heard some optimism in his speech.

At 2:38 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your son may be an exception to the rule.

At 3:06 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

.... but probably isn't. By and large it's the easiest sport in the world to condemn "Kids Today". Heck, it's each subsequent generation's national pasttime, when you think about it. It doesn't surprise me to hear that Peck indulges in Bad Nostalgia as frequently as he does Good. It's just SUCH an easy cop-out. When one looks at one's own youth through the hazy filter of the decades, it can sound pretty sweet in retrospect. I'm 29 and even now I find myself slipping into old fogey speak when I get on the subject of "Kids Today". But for all the flaws of the current generation, they'd probably be more apt to notice when a work of fiction fails to contain a single minority character than their grandparents would've at a similar age. Or is this yet another rough generalization?

At 4:40 PM , Blogger tanita✿davis said...

I had to hold off reading this book until I finished a WWII piece I'm working on, but it was lovely vintage Peck -- that good old Good Nostalgia firmly intact. Well put!

At 4:43 PM , Blogger tanita✿davis said...

...but, YES, he does, too, indulge in Bad Nostalgia as well; I have heard him speak, and it sometimes slips out as it does in all of us.

I don't think that your idea on the current generation is only a generalization -- if our generation has done one thing correctly, we've mostly remembered to find all of us in our various hues and expression - in our fiction. Mostly.

At 6:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. I probably didn't emphasize enough what a talented speaker he is -- fluid, theatrical, and engaging. And all of his opinions are great food for thought, even if you don't agree with them. I appreciate that he doesn't mince words. It makes me feel like he'd welcome a debate.

At 9:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, before we put Peck in a really nasty category, I would be curious to see what the Midwest's demographics were in the mid-40s. From the vantage point of urban America one can forget how German and Scandinavian and English much of the country is now and, especially, was then.

At 9:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"From the vantage point of urban America one can forget how German and Scandinavian and English much of the country is now and, especially, was then."

Precisely. Historical fiction does us a service by presenting history as it was (slightly subjectively, and colored by the "fiction" part) and holding up a mirror to what things were like rather than what we pretend they were like. There WAS a time when in a Midwestern city and in some walks of life, at a certain age, one might not come across anyone of color. I think it's important to hold a mirror up to ourselves in this way, to acknowledge that not so long ago, things were very, very different. Why pretend we had the diversity we have today? To throw in a reference for diversity's sake would be historically inaccurate and manipulative. Another way of slicing this is for someone to present, simply, a parallel tale of what life might have been like in a community of diversity, but that's another story altogether.

I think telling the story with the nuances of how it was is terrific. A document of what life was like -- realistically -- is a lovely legacy to present.

Ahem, just surfing in from the 'net... and surfin' on out...

At 9:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, yikes, on rereading, I'm sort of off the point. Yes, I believe kids now would see this as a curious historical characteristic and might be cognizant of how the world has changed.

At 9:43 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Well it's a good point. And certainly I'm not a fan of the black character who is stuffed into a work of fiction for the sole purpose of BEING a black character. It's funny that I mention Peck's white world in the review when, a little earlier, I'm talking about how I'm not affected by his earlier works like my colleague. But I obviously AM affected by his earlier works because when I parse my own reaction I can see that what I objected to was not necessarily the lack of diversity in THIS book but the lack of diversity in MANY of his books. So why go about claiming that I'm looking at this book on its own merits alone then criticizing it for what the author has or has not done in the past?

Oh, I love me a good debate. It's been a while.


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